Lili: So give us a couple of worst case/best case scenarios that you could imagine, if nothing else changes, nothing intervenes to change the trajectory we’re on. When young men prefer online sex to real life relationships because online is so much easier, and when the porn industry targets more and more females so that now the addiction rate amongst porn-using females is 17% and climbing steadily the past few years, what do you foresee possibly happening here?
Bob: Well, one clear consequence of this is that when in secular societies, especially within feminism, there’s no consistent critical examination of this, the only place where people are critiquing it, then, in a way that’s consistent, is in conservative and typically religious contexts.
So if the dominant secular culture can’t cope with the problems we’re discussing, I think it will simply drive more people, both men and women, to conservative and religious responses.
So they want to deal with it, but the dominant culture gives them no tools.
Well, if you go to right-wing religion, it does give you tools. Now, I think they’re the wrong tools; I don’t think they understand the nature of the issue and therefore I think their response is inadequate. But it is a response. So I think that’s one ironic consequence of it.
For people in secular circles, especially the secular, liberal or feminist circles to continue to celebrate pornography, refuse to look at the issues we’re talking about, it’s going to drive more people into the arms of right-wing religion where at least there’s an answer of some sort.
Unfortunately that answer is to reinscribe patriarchy, to return to quote unquote “traditional family values” where you see patriarchy playing out not in the way that men buy and sell women’s bodies but the way men must take their role as the head of the family in a traditional, heterosexual family values, etcetera, well, that’s one thing that’s going to happen.
The other thing that’s going to happen is that in some sense we can only assume the problems are going to get worse. The inability to not only take seriously the problems but understand the underlying systems from which those problems arise guarantees that, in the absence of some intervention, that it’ll just continue. And here, I don’t know how to predict.
Because the last 20 years, the period of time in which I’ve been studying the pornography industry, the industry has pushed the boundaries of what can be represented in graphic and sexually explicit fashion in ways that I don’t think anybody could have predicted 20 years ago. The extreme nature of some of the acts in pornography, the intensity of the cruelty and degradation to women, the racism of it, I mean all of it kind of defies the imagination.
And that’s not just my estimation. When I’ve interviewed pornography producers and directors, I often ask them, “What do you think is coming next? What are the trends?”
And they kind of shrug. Some of them have told me, “I’ve shot, I’ve filmed, I’ve photographed everything I know how to do.”
I’ve had male producers and directors tell me, “We’ve done everything to the female body we know how to do.”
Lili: Oh my God, I suddenly feel sick.
Bob: Well, it’s a very disturbing reality. But it is reality. And so, if the fundamental charge of pornography, the sexual charge, the excitement, comes from presenting women as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure in a patriarchal context where male domination and female subordination is at the core of that sexual excitement, then in a society like this, premised on mass mediation, premised on the expansion of profit in capitalism, the industry is going to continue to push for ever more extreme ways to try to provide that sexual excitement.
And where does that end? I don’t know where it ends.
Is there a limit? Well, I don’t know how to predict. The industry’s already gone way beyond what I think most people would have predicted in the past.
Lili: Well, as one example, we can look at Japan to see what’s happened there: the creation of video games where the player gets to virtually rape three generations of women: the very young daughter, the mother, the grandmother…
Bob: But I don’t think it’s specific to any one country. I think the porn industry is now global. There are specific styles of pornography that have come out of specific countries, including Japan, but they’re all similar in that they root the sexual excitement in male domination and female subordination. And that’s really the way to understand pornography in contemporary culture.
So yeah, there’s some pretty unbelievable things that come out of Japan, and there’s a lot of unbelievable stuff that comes out of the San Fernando Valley in California. There’s unbelievable stuff that comes out of Europe. We live in a world where women are bought and sold for male sexual pleasure on a daily basis. In some places it can be on the street, where you can buy and sell not only adult women but girls…and boys.
It happens through mediation in a more advanced industrial culture, it happens in all sorts of ways and it’s all part of this fundamental definition of women as being less than fully human.
And fulfilling one of their primary roles in the world as providing sexual pleasure for men. And that’s the core of patriarchy, and pornography is part of that.
Lili: What would one say about all these women pornographers now making porn? Because any talk about the patriarchy would then tend to fall on deaf ears.
Bob: But there’s nothing new about that. In complex systems of oppression, the trend in which members of oppressed groups might make their own particular bargain with the system, that goes on all the time.
Let’s take it out of the sexual context. Go to the third world where European and North American Imperialism has imposed economic systems on third world people that enrich the first world and enmiserate the third world. Well, in those societies there’s some portion of the third world society that makes it’s deal with the Imperialist society and is rewarded for that.
So you go to Latin America, in the worst of American domination, and there was a class of people who cut deals with American business and American government to get their share of the gain. Meanwhile the vast majority of the population suffered. It happens, and it’s complex and one has to look at people’s motivations and the systems within which people make those choices. The fact that women participate in what I would call patriarchal institutions is neither new nor surprising…it’s in the nature of oppression.
Lili: What I love so much about your work is the way in which you chronicle your own journey, and describe your own deconstruction of the concept of masculinity, what it stands for, and then eventually move more towards realizing that you would rather identify as human than as masculine.
So, I’d like to ask you about masculinity, then. There appears to be a strong drive to define what it is today.
How important do you think that is, to define masculinity?
Bob: I approach it in what I think is a very simple and sensible fashion. We are a sexually dimorphic species: there are male and female humans. Our reproduction is based on that. The result is that we will always have these categories of men and women, of masculine and feminine. They’re not going to go away because the species is based on sexual differentiation. So, I have no problem recognizing there are male bodies and female bodies, and also a small percentage of the human population born, what I call, “intersexed.”
The problem I have with the obsession with masculinity is about how that plays out within patriarchy. In patriarchy, there is a continued session with establishing a definition of masculinity that keeps men on top. Now, people will argue about what that definition should be. But much of the attempts even to redefine masculinity away from a traditional conception of masculinity based on domination, conquest and control—even a lot of the attempts to reformulate masculinity end up reinscribing that notion of domination, conquest, and control.
And so my argument is, that as a corrective to that, we need to stop obsessing about masculinity and, obviously, that would include implications for femininity, as well.
Lili: Of course.
Bob: But stop obsessing about what it means to be a man, and reformulate the question as: What does it mean to be a human? so that men can start to think about these questions outside of patriarchal demands that even in subtle ways, remain on top. And that’s, I think, the real challenge.
Once we’ve taken care of patriarchy and once male domination as a political reality is over, then I don’t mind talking about what is it to be male, and female, and what might masculinity and femininity really mean. But we’re not anywhere near that point yet.
And so, rather than try to constantly ask: how can we reconceptualize masculinity?, I think the greater challenge and the more productive challenge for men is, How to break free of our obsession with masculinity? and start asking: How can we more fully live out our humanity?
Lili: What about all the men’s groups now, whether male rights, or male empowerment groups?
How do you see that trend in the context we’re speaking of now?
Bob: I’ve spoken to some of them….I don’t participate in men’s groups, because I think, even when well-intentioned, most men’s groups end up playing out patriarchal games.
My formative political experience was in a feminist movement, in a feminist organization that was woman-run, based on the insights of women around patriarchy. That did everything I needed, for me.
It helped explain my own tension with masculinity, it gave me a vehicle for trying to change the world, and it gave me the tools I needed to engage in critical self-reflection. I didn’t need a men’s group; I’ve never understood the need for men’s groups.
I think men can more productively self-reflect about this, both individually and collectively, within the context of the feminist movement, rather than within the context of a men’s movement. And women are eager to have men engage in that, so there’s no shortage of ways to do it. And there’s nothing impeding men from doing that, from trying to understand themselves within a feminine context.
My argument is that is the only context men are going to break free of the ways in which patriarchy creates very toxic conceptions of masculinity. If we want to actually slip the trap of patriarchy ourselves, it’s going to be, from my point of view, through feminism, not through men’s groups.
Lili: So you wouldn’t identify yourself, then, as a humanist rather than a feminist? Is calling yourself a feminist primarily coming out of an allegiance to the movement which gave you your roots?
Bob: Yes! Just as in the same way that as a white person, I came to understand racial injustice and oppression, not by some vague humanism, but by the work of black and brown critics of white supremacy. In other words, when you have a system of oppression in place, you understand it not by trying to transcend the oppression in some mythical, magical fashion and pretend you can rise above it.
You deal with it by confronting it, and there are movements that have historically helped people do that. Radical anti-capitalists, labor movements have helped us engage in critiquing the inequality in capitalism. Feminism has helped us do that in gender. Various kinds of critical race groups have done that around white supremacy. That’s the vehicle, not some ideal, mythical humanism.
I don’t have any problem with the term “humanism” as some sort of assertion of an ideal that transcends differences, to try and understand our common humanity. But we do that through politics, and that politics needs a theory, and it needs an analysis and it needs an understanding of history. And that’s what feminism does for me in this particular context.
Read Part 1 of the interview: Is Sex Positive Ever Negative?
About Robert Jensen, Ph.D
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity ” target=”_blank”>Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); and several other books. Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing,” which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.